What Makes a Dead Church

Jeffrey Walton on February 22, 2013
Something to Avoid: Churches can fall into a spiral now that results in the bulldozer later. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Something to Avoid: Churches can fall into a spiral now that results in the bulldozer later. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Protestant religious landscape in my town is punctuated by two ongoing trends: new church plants bustling with young families and established congregations that are plateaued or in decline. The newer churches almost all uphold traditional church teachings, but utilize non-traditional buildings for worship and meet at non-traditional times. Some, but not all, of the plateaued or declining churches are more liberal in their theology. Regardless of if they are traditionalist or revisionist, these older churches are leasing their church buildings to pre-schools and other non-church groups and feature graying congregations.

With this backdrop from my local community in mind, Associated Baptist Press caught my attention this week with a story about a church in Decatur, Georgia which is about to be shuttered, demolished, and re-developed into a shopping center. Once drawing 500 persons on a Sunday, Scott Boulevard Baptist Church is now down to less than 50 members, most of which are rapidly aging.

To be clear, the congregation, affiliated with the moderate-liberal Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, isn’t dissolving. Having secured a lease agreement with a nearby church, Scott Boulevard will continue on without their facility of 60 years. But the article establishes the downward trajectory of the church.

“Congregational aging, if unplanned for, can be gut-wrenching,” the article reads. “And it’s likely in store for more congregations who fail to track the intersecting trends of giving and aging that eventually forced Scott Boulevard from its property.”

Understanding churches like Scott Boulevard is important for those of us in thriving, younger congregations. We don’t want our churches to fade away, and it is clear that once a church enters a predominantly-elderly death spiral, it is hard to reverse it. Young pastors have a saying that “it is easier to give birth than to bring something back to life,” hence the preference for church planting over revitalization in so many Evangelical publications and conferences.

Congregations like my own do not offer large campuses. Programmatically, we tightly focus on a few specific outreach areas — such as staffing the food bank collection from the farmer’s market — that pale in comparison to the expansive ministries of larger churches. But one-quarter of our congregation is children, and young parents seem willing to endure inconveniences if it means a quality children’s program and being surrounded by a peer group interested in building families.

Scott Boulevard’s story reminded me of two Baptist congregations in my town. One was never large and failed to cultivate children’s programs, by default directing any new families who arrived at the church to another (thriving) Baptist congregation a few blocks north. The small congregation dissolved, sold its building to another church, and placed the revenue from the sale in the hands of a Baptist mission organization. It was a God-honoring exit, but not what they had probably hoped for.

The other church, housed in a large building, once attracted over 1,500 persons on a Sunday. In the 1970s they failed to adapt to changing demographics – namely, an influx of northerners and immigrants – and the congregation is now down to about 50 persons. I am told that every young church plant in Arlington has hopefully inquired about moving into the church building.

At IRD, we note that many fading congregations proclaim liberal theologies that are not in accord with traditional church teachings. But while theological traditionalism is almost always a prerequisite for a large, vibrant congregation, it is not the only element.

Children’s small groups before or partly during the Sunday service (let alone youth ministry) can seem like a nuisance or not even on the radar for more elderly members. But if a congregation is not built around small, sustainable church practices that may at first seem inconvenient to some members, it risks unexpectedly finding itself in the graying death-spiral that is forcing Scott Boulevard out of its home.

Follow Jeff Walton on Twitter @JeffreyHWalton

  1. Comment by Gus Ravenwheel on February 22, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    It might be interesting to see some actual numbers comparing more liberal vs more conservative churches that are “dying,” but only marginally so.

    Good, faithful local churches sometimes dwindle and end. That their message may have been more progressive or more conservative can’t be pointed to and it said, “THERE! THAT is the reason they had to close.”

    Indeed, many very faithful churches ended precisely because they were faithful. Think of the many martyr churches throughout history and around the world. Large numbers are no assurance of fidelity to God, agreed?

    The thing is, local churches will come and go and there’s nothing inherently bad in that, it seems to me. Is the original Jerusalem church still with us? Are Paul’s church “plants” begun in Corinth or Rome still intact?

    Our particular church offers another option. We were begun 125 years ago as a mission to the “wretched refuse” in Louisville, KY. In those early days, we had attendance of 50-100 drunks, addicts, prostitutes and other poor folk seeking a better way.

    Today, we have an average attendance of 60-80 recovering alcoholics, addicts, mentally ill, social workers, teachers, children and adults. Neither growing nor shrinking in numbers, but staying the same for over 100 years – the “same” being, attempting to be faithful to God’s call to walk in Jesus’ steps. We couldn’t easily grow if we wanted to – we don’t have the space and aren’t inclined to build bigger buildings. We don’t see that as our call. There’s another model to look to.

    I don’t know that it’s any better or worse, just another model to consider.

    Beyond that, it’s entirely possible that one day, this faithful little congregation will dwindle down to 25 or to 15 and finally close its doors (indeed, that nearly happened 40 years ago, I believe). We might just call such occurrences natural and to be expected.

    Something to consider…

    In Christ,


  2. Comment by Michael Jenulis on February 24, 2013 at 9:58 am

    >Is the original Jerusalem church still with us? Are Paul’s church “plants” begun in Corinth or Rome still intact?

    Yes. They are now called the orthodox and Catholic Churches.

  3. Comment by paynehollow on February 24, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    1. Factually speaking, the historic early church, as found in Jerusalem, Rome and Corinth, were not associated with the Orthodox or Catholic denominations.

    2. I was speaking of local congregations, not denominations. The local congregations in Jerusalem, Rome and Corinth are no longer around and that is not an indication that they were not faithful. That was my point, just factually pointing out the real world history of the early church.

    I’m sure we can agree on these facts, can’t we? (After all, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts, as they say…)

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